Forget stylish Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of those cities that have been lucky enough to be associated with trendiness. Just close your eyes for a moment and think Buenos Aires. What comes to mind? Carlos Gardel, couples dancing tango in the picturesque barrio de la Boca , a great and juicy steak and even Jorge Luis Borges is there waving at you while walking to the National Library.

Well, if that is your idea of Buenos Aires better not read 7 Ways to Kill a Cat. That sexy and stylish city is nowhere to be seen. It’s too far away from the harsh everyday reality of the characters of this novel by Matías Néspolo.

The story takes place in a shanty town in the outskirts of Buenos Aires,  a place of extreme poverty where violence, drug trafficking and crime affects everybody. This is a place where not even childhood will spare you being dragged into gang warfare. Either you join or you die. As simple as that. But the interesting thing about the setting of the novel is that, in theory, this place could be anywhere in the world during a financial crisis. It could well be a shanty town in the outskirts of Mexico City, Chicago, Paris or Delhi. The way violence affects people and the way it’s inhabitants behave to protect their lives would be exactly the same.

7 Ways to Kill a Cat is not a bubble gum novel. The characters have no way out, no happy endings here, no opportunities for a better life, no success story, no love story that makes you smile either. But through the narration of our protagonist Gringo, we can see sparks of kindness and friendship that makes the whole thing even more tragic.

“I just don’t want any more grief. These guys are vicious bastards. You plan them on their home ground, you lose. Better to give them a wide berth.” (p.74)

For me, the element that I found incredibly clever is the presence of Moby DickGringo after brutally assaulting and stealing a large sum of money from Fat Farias, takes a trip to Buenos Aires deciding to spend as much as possible. Since the story is set in Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, Gringo finds all the shops in sale and slashing prices. It’s hard to spend money! But surprisingly (for me, the reader) he gets hold of a copy of Henry Mellville’s Moby Dick not knowing exactly why and what to expect. From that point onwards, the “whale book” plays an important role in accompanying Gringo’s life.

“Like Ishmael, I’ve got more than enough to get to hell and back. What do I do? I open the book to look for advise, to see what the guy in the book has to say, and the loco comes out with some shit…” (p. 151)

There are certain moments in the novel, where in a brilliant way the speed of events Gringo’s life run parallel to Moby Dick’s plot, working as a mirror between fiction and reality. In many ways the pages of this classic lead him to reflect and think about the reality around him. For example, when reading about Moby Dick being white as milk, he says:

“The weird thing was the kids with the whitest smocks were usually the ones who were starving. It was like you could eliminate povery with bleach, scrub out stigma with soap.” (p. 109).

I liked the fact that it starts and ends with the same phrase. However, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is definitely a  stronger novel in the second part. Another slightly weak point is, in my opinion, an excess of characters that distracted me. I think the story is powerful enough with memorable people like Gringo, Chueco, Mamina, Fat Farias and Quique. The presence of others such as El pampita or el negro Sosa  do not add anything crucial to the plot and could even appear as ghostly figures that Néspolo asks us to remember with no apparent reason.

Overall, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is a pleasant and entertaining read that shares the atmosphere of Fernando Meirelles’ film City of God. I guess that gives you a clue of what to expect.

Ps. I am usually reluctant to read English translations on books written in Spanish, because I rather be exposed directly to the author’s writing. But in this case I had to read it in English. At first, I must confess I found it hard to imagine these characters speaking English and throwing words such as viejo, m’hijo, truco, compañero, mate, etc. It felt artificial and stiff but I guess avoiding that is part of the huge challenge of translating street slang. However, as the story flowed I totally forgot about this and got absolutely immersed in the narrative. I ended up being grateful that these key words were left in Spanish, because it’s the only reference that reminds you the story is taken place in Argentina. I say, if you are a Spanish speaker, give the translator a chance.

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Solitude and the City

 

For the last three years, the Association of Cultural Attaches of Latin America, Spain and Portugal (ACALASP) has presented the only literary festival dedicated to promote our literature and so kindly have let me collaborate with them as co-curator. The location is the wonderful Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross in the heart of London, the perfect place to gather Ibero American book lovers.

The festival started last Monday with a session dedicated to Colombia’s award winning author Evelio Rosero and on Tuesday it was Mexico’s turn in the spotlight with the presence of the celebrated writer Chloe Aridjis.

Chloe (apart from being the daughter of the renowned poet and writer Homero Aridjis) is the author of a fantastic novel called Book of Clouds, published in the UK by Vintage. Unlike many conferences where the author talks about the book half the audience hasn’t read, Chloe was accompanied by an extraordinary chair: Darian Leader. Without revealing much about the plot of the novel, Darian and Chloe focused on the most relevant topic in the book: solitude in the cities.

Chloe said to always been interested in the relation people have with the place they inhabit, especially now a days when people live in cities without any family roots. The main character in novel, Tatiana, experiences feeling lonely surrounded by a crowd, and in this way Chloe Aridjis makes clear that solitude is detached to the physicality of people and perhaps a key element in contemporary life. By doing this, the city in the novel (Berlin) becomes a character as well, capable to interact with its inhabitants by provoking a variety of feelings: anxiety, disorientation, happiness and, of course, loneliness. I guess she’s right to say that at the end of the day, our lives in an urban space are determined by how much the city gives and takes away from you. This is food for thought for all of us living away from our home town, and definitely a must read novel.

So thumbs up to Chloe Aridjis and Darian Leader for a fantastic event!

 

 

Memorias de una dama

Hace un par de días terminé de leer una de esas novelas que no puedes dejar, de esas que te enganchan y sobre todo una de esas que te plantea acontecimientos en los que no habías pensado. La novela se llama Memorias de una dama, escrita por el peruano Santiago Roncagliolo.

La novela tiene varias historias, la del personaje principal que es un autor desesperado por publicar en España a cualquier precio, la de Diana Minetti con la historia de su vida y  finalmente la otra historia de la República Dominicana y Cuba durante las dictaduras de Trujillo y Batista respectivamente. Al inicio del libro hay una advertencia del autor en la que nos dice que nos encontramos frente a una obra de ficción. Quizá a nivel de los personajes, pero haciendo un poco de investigación, lo que Roncagliolo narra del estilo de vida de las “buenas familias” en estas islas del Caribe en los años 40s y 50s tiene un fundamento histórico. Y es precisamente este aspecto lo que me pareció fascinante de la novela.

Debo confesar que hasta hace apenas unos meses, desconocía por completo la existencia de la terrible dictadura de Rafael Leónidas Trujillo en República Dominicana (sí, obviamente no he leído La fiesta del chivo de Mario Vargas Llosa).  El caso es que me topé con este siniestro personaje a través de una novela de Junot Díaz que se llama The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, de la que hablaré en otra ocasión. El caso es que nuevamente aparece  ante mi, el Gral. Trujillo, esta vez en la novela de Roncagliolo.

Como decía, independientemente de mi total ignorancia sobre la historia de la República Dominicana, Memorias de una dama, también puso de manifiesto lo poco que sé de Cuba. Yo había visto el triunfo de la Revolución como un evento un tanto romántico, encabezado por figuras tan carismáticas como el Ché Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos y desde luego Fidel Castro quienes defendieron los intereses del pueblo cubano que estaba, sin duda, reprimido. En la narración, si queremos “ficticia” de la vida de Diana Minetti y su familia, La Habana se presentan como la ciudad más esplendorosa de América Latina durante los años del Gral. Fulgencio Batista. Todos querían vivir en La Habana, hospedarse en sus grandes y lujosos hoteles, disfrutar de la vibrante vida nocturna que ofecía la ciudad, codearse con los escritores y estrellas de Holywood que visitaban constantemente Cuba porque La Habana era el lugar donde estar.  Lo que vemos de majestuoso hoy en día es lo que queda de aquellos años.

Hasta ahí todo muy bien. Todos sabemos la historia de que mientras unos se divertían y hacían negocios de millones de dólares (como era el caso de la familia Minetti en la novela), otros carecían de lo más básico. Sin embargo, hay un capítulo de la novela en el que se relata una gran fiesta que Batista ofrece a las “alta sociedad” de La Habana. Y mientras trascurre el banquete comienza a circular un rumor de que hay una habitación repleta de maletas. Batista está a punto de huir (ya se ha enterado de la inminente entrada de Fidel Castro a La Habana). Y literalmente se van con él aquellos invitados que alcanzan a subirse al avión. Muchos, dejando Cuba con lo que traían puesto y perdiendolo absolutamente todo. Naturalmente, nuestra Diana Minetti no es una de las afortunadas y tras el triunfo de la Revolución su familia queda arruinada, sus bienes confiscados y su vida destruida.

Es estes el lado de la Revolución en el que yo no había pensado. En lo mal que se la pasaron muchas de esas familias “acomodadas” que vieron entrar guerrilleros a sus jardines y casas confiscandolo todo en nombre de la Revolución.  Aquellos que lo dejaron todo, salieron del país sin nada y nunca más pudieron volver. No había pensado en aquellos que no tuvieron otra salida más que el exilio obligado.

Mientras Roncagliolo nos narra estos mundos de la “alta sociedad” en donde se infiltra irremediablemente la corrupción, el soborno y hasta la CIA, también nos presenta con una realidad que es tangible y actual: la migración de latinoamericanos a España. Aunque los comentarios de su narrador me daban risa, creo que Roncagliolo es un autor valiente capaz de decir sí, en España no somos latinoamericanos,  somos “sudacas”. Punto. Y sí, en nuestros países se ve como un triunfo vivir en Europa aunque se tengan maestrías y doctorados y trabajemos de meseros o cargando cajas. Porque en Europa (o en el caso de la novela, España) se está mejor que en el Perú, México, Ecuador o Bolivia. Y claro, tener un pasaporte europeo se mira como una “comodidad” (cómo? no tienes uno?).  Qué bien le caería leer esta novela a más de uno. Y yo vi a tanta gente proyectada en estos comentarios que no me quedó más que subrayar esas frases y pensar “qué razón tiene Santiago Roncagliolo!”.